Camille Saint-Saëns

Danse macabre, symphonic poem in G minor, Op. 40

    Description by John Palmer

    Composed in 1874 and published in 1875, Danse macabre is the third of Saint-Saëns' four orchestral tone poems and is easily his most popular work in that medium. In his Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), composed in 1886, Saint-Saëns parodies the Danse macabre, as well as works by other composers.

    The title of Danse macabre is usually translated as Dance of Death, but Ghoulish Dance or Dance of Grim Humor might better communicate the character of the piece. Saint-Saëns did not originally write the Danse macabre as a work for orchestra. It was first a song for voice and piano that the composer later transcribed and modified for orchestra. A few lines from the song's text will aid in understanding the symphonic poem: "Death at midnight plays a dance-tune/Zig, zig, zig on his violin....Through the gloom, white skeletons pass/Running and leaping in their shrouds....The bones of the dancers are heard to crack." Once the cock crows, signaling the approach of morning, the fun ends. It is possible that this is the first instance of Death being portrayed as a violinist, an instrument generally associated with the devil.

    After the orchestra strikes midnight, depicted by horns and pizzicato strings, the violin soloist plays as if he/she is tuning his/her instrument before a solo flute performs a bouncy melody, which is answered by the strings. The violin soloist then enters with a lilting waltz tune, played twice and answered first by a brief return of the flute theme, with added percussion, and then the entire orchestra with the waltz theme. The piece thus far has behaved like an exposition, presenting the principal material, while what follows consists of variations on that material. Xylophones playing the flute melody depict skeletons dancing just before a fugal presentation of the waltz begins. A new melody in the woodwinds is based on the Dies irae, a chant melody setting the text of the Judgment Day and often invoked by Romantic-era composers when the subject is death. Eventually, both the flute and waltz tune sound at once in the entire orchestra, just before the violin again begins "tuning." After a huge reprise of the combined melodies, a "cock crow" sounds in the oboe and rapid scales depict the scurrying off of the creatures of the night.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2019 Hyperion CDA 68212
    2018 ABC Classics 4829892
    2018 ABC Classics ABC 4829893
    2018 Deutsche Grammophon
    2018 EOS Guitar Edition EOS 2342005
    2018 Tactus TC 862722
    2018 Chandos CHAN 20088
    2018 Analekta AN 28746
    2018 Ars Produktion ARS 38244
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797477
    2017 Melodiya MELCD 1002463
    2017 Warner Classics 0190295886738
    2017 Warner Classics 560476
    2017 Fountainhead Productions GM-A20000
    2017 Fountainhead Productions
    2017 Nimbus / Nimbus Records NI 5941
    2017 Alpha 273
    2017 Naxos 8573745
    2017 Argo / Decca
    2017 Erato 559207
    2017 Erato WPCS-13668
    2017 Erato 0190295888503
    2016 Chandos CHAN 24155
    2016 Decca 4830396
    2016 Decca
    2016 Erato 557140
    2016 Genuin GEN 16421
    2016 Fountainhead Productions
    2016 Capriccio Records C 5202
    2016 Decca
    2015 Berlin Classics 0300613BC
    2015 Erato
    2015 Erato 0825646154975
    2015 Guild Historical GHCD 24167
    2015 Naxos 8573140
    2015 Naxos NBD 0045
    2015 Naxos 8573331
    2015 Warner Classics 825646134007
    2015 Oehms Classics OC 848
    2014 Regent REGCD 434
    2014 Brilliant Classics 94892BR
    2014 Classic FM CFMD 33
    2013 Sony Classical 88883769482
    2013 Decca 4785437
    2013 Orchid Classics ORC 100030
    2013 Analekta AN 29725
    2013 Virgin Classics 7356222
    2013 Decca / Mercury 4785092
    2013 Priory Records PRCD 5048
    2013 Raven / Raven Records OAR 944
    2013 Steinway & Sons 30031
    2013 Dal Segno DSPRCD 039
    2013 Sony Classical 88883710032
    2013 Explore Multimedia / Silver Fist EXM 004
    2013 MDG Gold
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2012 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099995547
    2012 Chandos CHSA 5104
    2012 Alto 1187
    2012 Decca 4783301
    2012 Mark Custom Recording 2951
    2012 Fidelio 037
    2012 Fidelio FACD 912
    2012 BIS BIS 1828
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099991762
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    2011 Deutsche Grammophon 001594802
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    2011 Decca
    2011 Oehms Classics 678
    2011 Alpha Productions / Outhere Music 652
    2011 Sterling CDA 1671
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94174
    2011 Dutton Digital / Dutton Laboratories CDBP 9809
    2011 Cascavelle 3136
    2011 Estonian Record Productions ERP 3810
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    2009 Biber Records / Zebralution
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    2009 Naxos 575085-86
    2009 Sony Classical Essential Classics 741940
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    2003 NARM Classical And Jazz Committee 50008
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    1999 RCA Red Seal 7432166924
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    1999 Platinum Entertainment 1890
    1999 London 448571
    1999 History 203290
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    1998 Cedille Records 41
    1998 Reference Recordings 82
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    1998 MDG 3200818
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    1995 Dutton Laboratories CDK1200
    1994 Telestar 2757
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    Apex 89244
    Erato 55001
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    Denon Records 9051
    Sirio 530027
    Royal Classics 6422
    Musical Heritage Society 532862
    The Radio Years 46
    Virgin Classics 694539
    Cadenza Collection 101
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    Rca Red Seal 6205
    History 2031951
    Orchard 000
    Argo 101531
    Classic Compact Discs 2225
    Russian Music Society 10007